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Teacher union recertification challenged by COVID-19 pandemic, but participation hasn't dropped
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Teacher union recertification challenged by COVID-19 pandemic, but participation hasn't dropped

MTI buttons

Buttons made by Madison Teachers Inc. for the November 2014 certification elections.

Teacher unions across the state began their annual recertification efforts this month, but the already laborious process, built on human connection and communication, has been made even more difficult by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“(COVID-19) has really forced our educators to do things differently, in the same way our union leaders from each local have had to do things differently in this recertification vote,” said Ron Martin, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s largest teachers union.

Akin to the new online learning landscape brought on by the pandemic, union officials have been canvassing digitally in an effort to get out the vote to recertify their organization for another year, a process that Martin said he believes has gone well amid a year otherwise marred by the health crisis.

Numbers tallied by the Wisconsin Employment Relation Commission midway through the recertification process reflect Martin’s optimism. Unions seeking to retain their status are doing slightly better with participation than last year, with 66% of members having cast votes, up from 63% last year.

The recertification rules were created under 2011’s Act 10, a Republican-passed law that stripped public sector unions of collective bargaining rights and made it more difficult to form and maintain unions. Prior to Act 10, unions did not have to recertify each year to maintain their standing.

Every teacher in a school district is considered a voting member, whether they claim union affiliation or not, and 51% of all teachers must vote “yes” for the union to be recertified as the exclusive bargaining group to represent district educators for another year. If a teacher abstains from the vote, it’s considered a “no” vote.

“That’s how we lost so many different teacher unions in the state following Act 10,” former Madison Teachers Inc. president Sara Bringman said. “People were too busy to vote, people didn’t understand that by not voting they were voting ‘no’ … It’s just an awful situation.”

Before Act 10, there were roughly 430 certified teacher unions in Wisconsin, or at least one for every school district. But this year only 199 teacher unions are running recertification elections.

Of those, 42 hadn’t reached 50% member participation by Nov. 16, the halfway point in the election process, according to the Wisconsin Employment Relation Commission. Last year, 47 unions out of 203 seeking recertification hadn’t reached 50% participation by the midway count.

In Madison

Locally, the goal of Madison Teachers Inc. is to recertify with a high percentage of “yes” votes from Madison School District teachers, after the district approved a budget with a base wage increase for teachers that some argue is significantly less than what is needed, after a lengthy negotiation.

“We went into our initial conversations with membership in this unusual year … with that question of where does our membership stand?” MTI president Andy Waity said.

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Negotiations between the district and MTI during the pandemic year included obtaining a waiver from mandated educator effectiveness evaluations, maintaining the presence of educator voice and perspective amid the health crisis and an effort to persuade the Madison School Board to approve the base wage increase for teachers that aligned with the federally determined annual cost-of-living increase of 1.81%. The School Board approved an increase in teacher base wages of 0.5% in October.

As of Nov. 16, 84% of Madison teachers had voted in the recertification election.

“I think folks really understand the importance, the significance of this election and what it means to us,” Waity said. “On one hand it’s for recertifying, and on the other hand it’s that public acknowledgement of a group of folks standing together.”

“What Act 10 has done is … made this annual, very disruptive process to the employment relations that do exist,” Ed Sadlowski, executive director of MTI, said as he attributed the withering of the number of unions across the state to the recertification process.

“Even our own counsel of teachers unions had really taken a hard hit, too — the membership has dropped about 70% within the state, within WEAC,” he said.

Legal standing

Unions are not automatically disbanded if they choose not to recertify, or fail to reach the 51% vote threshold, but they lack legal standing to serve as the exclusive representative of workers with an employer.

There are district employees in Madison schools — such as food service and custodial staff — that chose not to recertify their union and as a result, the district won’t sit down with them to negotiate base wages, Sadlowski said.

Along with the recertification process, Act 10 introduced other union bargaining barriers that made it harder for unions to negotiate for more affordable employee health care and long-range pay changes that unions say hamper the state’s ability to attract and keep educators.

“There haven’t been any strikes in the teaching world (in Wisconsin), so you can say there’s labor peace, but I would say there’s been a silent strike when you look at the exodus of folks from the profession,” Waity said.

Assessing the impact of Act 10 on Wisconsin, 5 years later

Assessing the impact of Act 10 on Wisconsin, 5 years later

Five years ago today, Republican Gov. Scott Walker introduced legislation that would effectively end collective bargaining for public employees and unmoor Wisconsin from its progressive roots.

In his own words, it was the day he "dropped the bomb."

The bill that later became Act 10 launched the largest protests ever in Madison, including a temporary occupation of the Capitol; legislative chaos highlighted by Democratic senators fleeing to Illinois to forestall a floor vote; and Walker's historic recall victory.

The days, weeks and months after Walker's Feb. 11, 2011, announcement were among the most dramatic in Wisconsin's history.

Years later, Act 10 continues to influence the state's political, economic and social landscape. And it will continue to reverberate years into the future.

Today, the Wisconsin State Journal explores five impacts of Act 10 on the five-year anniversary of its introduction.

Wisconsin's political fault lines existed long before Act 10, but the law that hobbled public sector unions and launched Gov. Scott Walker as a national conservative star may be most remembered years from now for bringing those fissures into high relief.

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